Spa City Democrats battle it out for the mayor’s office as
a Republican candidate waits in the wings
by Chris Shields
tall, mustached man sharply flicks the turn signal of his
SUV as he cruises down Caroline Street in the city of Saratoga
Springs. “When you have a strong position in the market, you
don’t want to only use the break or accelerator to determine
what happens. You have to use the steering wheel,” he says,
commenting on development strategies for the city.
The man’s name is Gordon Boyd, and he is running for mayor
of Saratoga Springs.
It is a Tuesday in August. The sun is shining, the traffic
is bearable because the track is closed for the day, and the
only hint that fall—with its dead leaves, rain and politics—will
soon overtake this beauty are the lawn signs supporting incumbent
Mayor Valerie Keehn.
And there are lots of them.
Boyd says he has decided not to distribute signs to supporters
until after track season, so as not to “clutter up the city.”
When Boyd first moved to town in the winter of 1971, he says
he and his wife paid $80 a month in rent, heat included.
As he describes it, he was a hippie businessman running a
health-food store, paying $125 a month in rent for his storefront
in a part of town “where people thought strange things happened.”
These days you would be lucky to rent a parking space in Saratoga
Springs for $125 a month.
have changed,” he says and laughs.
Boyd is now the owner of Energy Next, a company that buys
energy, including natural gas and electricity, at bulk rates
for chambers of commerce all over the Capital Region. Saratoga
Springs participates in the program, and Boyd says he would
recuse himself from decisions regarding “energy procurement”
if elected mayor.
As much as things have changed in Saratoga Springs over the
three decades Boyd has been a resident, Saratoga Springs has
remained a city of tradition, both socially and politically.
Although Boyd is not the incumbent candidate, he does have
the support of the city’s most well-known power broker, Department
of Public Works Commissioner Thomas McTygue.
In the Democratic primary, Boyd faces Keehn, a candidate who
ran on the notions of changing Saratoga Springs’ political
traditions, properly managing development and opening the
doors of Saratoga Springs’ political backrooms to its citizens.
When Keehn beat the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate,
Hank Kuczynski, in the 2005 Democratic primary, pundits began
to wonder if Saratoga Springs’ entrenched Democratic politicians
might be losing their grip.
Running a grassroots campaign, Keehn went door-to-door introducing
herself to voters, painting herself as a representative of
the average Saratogian concerned about families and workers
rather than big developers and Saratoga Springs’ elite.
That November, Keehn led a sweep of Democratic candidates
over their Republican challengers. Some declared that the
political elite would soon no longer be able to trade patronage
for power while kowtowing to rich developers.
Despite a bitter primary, others within the party hoped that
Keehn would take time to establish herself and build bridges
to the old guard led by McTygue, so that together the city’s
leaders could push a unified agenda through Saratoga Springs’
commissioner form of government.
Familiar with the influence of McTygue and the rumors of less-then-above-board
dealings that surrounded him, Keehn was determined to break
what she saw as McTygue’s stranglehold on Saratoga Springs.
Who was first to insult whom is debatable, but because the
relationship between Keehn and McTygue soured before Keehn
took office, it was clear that no one was going to get what
they wanted. The first obvious dispute between Keehn and McTygue
was over Keehn’s decision to replace McTygue’s brother, Billy
McTygue, on the Saratoga Springs Planning Board. And for two
years, the very public feud between Keehn and McTygue has
ensured that the Democratic sweep of 2005 would not yield
unity or even, in some people’s eyes, very many tangible results.
videos posted by Roger Wyatt, a professor of experimental
television and a Keehn supporter, show what the discord between
McTygue and Keehn has wrought on civility in the now completely
Democratic-controlled Saratoga Springs City Council meetings.
meetings, McTygue has regularly shouted Keehn down, and one
of Wyatt’s videos even captures McTygue shining a laser pointer
into Wyatt’s camera. McTygue also has the habit of scolding
Keehn for not being able to control her meetings.
Insiders say McTygue has repeatedly promised to make Keehn
cry during a council meeting.
Wyatt insists that McTygue has had a habit of bullying mayors,
and says further that he has footage of McTygue scolding former
Mayor Mike Lenz for the same inability to control his meetings—meetings
generally dominated by McTygue allies.
is an attitude that has permeated our local government for
so long that people tend to believe that that was just normal
operations,” says Keehn, “and I disagree that should be normal
operations in a local government.”
Although Keehn did not initially expect Wyatt’s videos to
go up on YouTube, she certainly does not mind the results.
think it’s important that the everyday family with two working
parents who are concerned about their taxes understand how
their government is operating, and that they understand what
is happening in those meetings. I don’t expect them to take
three hours twice a week to come to a council meeting, but
I want to make that available to them. The two YouTube videos
that are up of some pretty interesting city council meetings
give them a pretty clear idea as to what has been going on
in those meetings for the last 18 months.”
thought they were getting Blanche DuBois,” says Wyatt of Keehn,
“but what they got was Margaret Thatcher.”
And that is where the disparity of opinions about Keehn among
members of the Democratic Party becomes quite apparent. Some
“Keehniacs” see Keehn as a people’s champion, willing to fight
McTygue, the city’s most powerful and aggressive politician,
for a chance to change business as usual. Others see Keehn
as a bumbling amateur, stumbling into fights she can’t win,
while abandoning any hope of advancing policy.
would have gone to the big issues,” says Boyd, describing
what he would have done if he had run and won in 2005. “I
would have gone to parking, water, truck traffic, open space.
I wouldn’t have wasted my energy trying to run the public-works
Boyd says both McTygue and Keehn were elected by the people
and therefore should be working together. “All five people
get elected by the same voters. They are not there to compete
with each other. They are put there to work together in the
best interest of the city. Whatever party or philosophy or
any other sort of difference, you’ve got to set all that aside
to do what is in the best interest of the city.”
Keehn insists that she has accomplished the goals she had
coming into office, despite being at odds with McTygue.
can go home at night and enjoy my family and go to sleep knowing
that I’ve done the best thing that I can do and that I don’t
have to be concerned or worried about whether or not I’ve
continued to live I up to my principles,” Keehn says.
She insists that she has kept her promises by appointing representatives
to city government who are not insiders and who share her
concerns about development.
have brought out things in the structure of our government
that needed to be brought out,” she says. “I have tried to
have an open dialogue with people and an open city government,
and the way to do that is by bringing new people into the
process. And I certainly have done that.”
The divergence of opinions about Boyd is even more striking.
While some present Boyd as a crunchy businessman interested
in returning civility and efficiency to city government, others
insist Boyd is an arrogant snob who functions as a puppet
of McTygue and is truly a Republican in Democratic clothing,
looking to benefit developers before his city.
think that there are entrenched politicians that have learned
to play both sides of the political coin,” says Keehn. “And
that is not necessarily a bad thing. In politics, you need
to be able to work with everybody. But I also think that you
have to stand for something, and people want to know what
you stand for. If you are going to run for office, you can’t
stand on one side and say ‘I’m a loyal Democrat and a true
progressive’ when the reality of what you do in your personal
and professional life proves differently.”
Boyd says the people who support him do not reflect the kind
of mayor he would be: “What I’m proposing to do as mayor is
what I’m running on. The people who have endorsed me, endorsed
me because of what they think I’m going to do and the leader
I’m going to be. I’m not buying into anyone else’s agenda
in order to do that. I’m just trying to do what is best for
matter how you look at it, most pundits say the 2007 election
will be a tough one for Keehn. Her first major policy push
for charter change was defeated in 2006, thanks to the efforts
of McTygue and Boyd and their group Saratogians United to
Continue the Charter Essential to Sustain our Success, which
is now endorsing candidates for the 2007 election. These endorsements
have riled both Keehn supporters and Republicans who say the
group is clearly a creation of McTygue and Boyd and has no
reason to exist other than to advance their interests.
Some say Boyd, who announced his candidacy in January, has
yet to truly “turn it on.” However, Boyd already has more
party endorsements than Keehn.
Due to maneuvering within the Saratoga Springs Democratic
Committee, Keehn did not receive the Democratic endorsement
this time around; she did not even bother to ask for it. Instead,
it was Boyd who won the nomination after the city committee
rejected the recommendation of Saratoga County Democratic
Chair Larry Bulman not to endorse a candidate until after
the primary. Both Bulman and Keehn thought delaying an endorsement
till after the primary could save what little unity was left
in the party.
Boyd also secured the Conservative Party nomination, a circumstance
that has given Keehn supporters backing for their assertion
that Boyd is a Republican in Democratic clothing. At the same
time, it has probably made him more appealing across party
Keehn received her first endorsement from the Working Families
Party, but only after the WFP was convinced to retract its
decision to not endorse any candidate.
According to Keehn, the charter-reform measure she introduced
would have rearranged Saratoga Springs’ government so that
the she and every other mayor that followed her could govern
some point there needs to be someone to say the buck stops
here,” says Keehn, who, thanks to opposition within her own
party, has had to struggle with multiple department heads
to achieve even the simplest things.
Saratoga Springs’ form of government leaves power dispersed
among five commissioners, who oversee their separate departments
and who do not answer to the mayor.
charter fight had two sorts of messages to it,” says Boyd.
“One was, ‘I’m going to replace everybody else on the City
Council who just got elected on the Democratic ticket. I’m
going to get rid of our whole form of government.’ ” Boyd
insists that Keehn sprang the reform issue on Saratoga Springs
and went about working on the issue during racing season,
when Saratogians traditionally are busy or out of town.
didn’t run saying she was going to replace the form of government.
The community was blindsided by the charter commission and
then really left out of the process,” he says, “ ’cause it
was unfolded during racing season.”
Boyd has a number of caveats about the way he thinks charter
reform should be introduced. He says that only after citizens
decide they cannot solve recurring problems the city faces
simply by voting officials out, an experienced mayor should
then spend 18 months working openly on the issue. Boyd says
that Keehn jumped the gun by introducing charter reform in
her first term and did not have enough experience to get it
passed. He insists that a mayor would have to run on the issue,
so as to be up-front with voters that they intended to change
the city’s entire form of government.
Keehn counters that she spearheaded the issue because of a
public mandate in the form of a citizens-group-circulated
petition that would have had a mayor/alderman form of government
on the ballot in the fall of 2006 whether she was involved
That petition for charter reform had the signatures of many
prominent Republicans and Democrats. However, Keehn says that
when she started pushing the issue and approached these established
figures to be on the committee, they declined and asked her
to put off reform again. Keehn says having seen the issue
taken up and abandoned year after year by other politicians,
she was not willing to let it drop again on her watch.
Ironically, Keehn says that a number of issues Boyd is running
on and attacking her for failing to address are issues that,
under the current form of government, fall under other department
heads, And they are things she could have moved ahead on without
full consensus from the commissioners if charter reform had
passed. She says the issues Boyd speaks of are those recurring
issues that have not been dealt with over decades by simply
voting officials out.
Had charter reform been successful, Keehn would have powers
comparable to what the average city mayor has. At least in
Keehn’s mind, she would be able to act decisively, or at least
better negotiate with other department heads.
Boyd brings up one of those issues—truck traffic through Saratoga
Springs’ residential neighborhoods—as he drives toward the
outskirts of the city.
mayor appointed a transportation committee to address transportation
needs, but she didn’t bring up the truck issue,” he says.
“In these neighborhoods, the trucks are coming through, they
are really getting shaken to their bones. And I think we really
have to make the truck issue a high-priority issue. You can’t
have a transportation plan if it doesn’t address these trucks.”
Keehn says that the issue is not as simple as Boyd would make
wants to blame me for every problem there is in the city,”
she says, “and he is not recognizing I’ve been mayor for 18
months and these are problems that have been ongoing and progressive
problems over the last 10 to 20 years.”
Policy on problems such as truck traffic has languished in
Saratoga Springs for years because the commission form of
government does not lend itself to department heads with different
agendas getting together to solve problems that may be politically
heard repeatedly,” says Keehn, “the reason no administrations
before ours have ever taken it on is because it’s a loser—it’s
a political loser. No matter what you do there will be a neighborhood
unhappy about having trucks diverted through their neighborhood.
Everybody has a two-year term, and again, it’s the structure
of our government that doesn’t allow someone to say, ‘I’m
going to take the political heat for doing the right thing.’
However, Keehn has wound up taking plenty of political heat
for championing issues that are not popular, especially the
charter-reform issue, which has been her biggest political
defeat to date.
slows his vehicle as he approaches Jefferson Terrace, a Housing
Authority property, and points. “Here is the public-housing
project where there was some controversy about the mayor’s
lawn signs,” he says. “They were all out on a public right
of way, on public property. And I thought, ‘You know, I haven’t
been to many of those units in the last few years, but I have
to believe there’s a lot more maintenance projects for that
guy to look after than asking those people if they want a
sign for the mayor.’ ”
Keehn, however, says she has been to those housing projects
and knows that she has supporters there. Keehn becomes uncharacteristically
riled when the issue is mentioned.
spent many days walking the terraces, and I have spent a lot
of time there getting to know the residents,” she says. “And
what I heard from most of those people is that no candidate
had ever knocked on their door before. I want them to be part
of a process they felt left out of for a long, long time.
I worked hard to gain their support.”
Keehn says that the most enraging thing about the flap over
the signs was that people were insisting that the residents
of the terrace should not be able to express their political
can’t even describe to you the emotion that brings out in
me,” she says, “that because somebody lives in federally funded
housing they shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the political
Furthermore, Keehn says, her supporter and Housing Authority
head of maintenance Gerard Hawthorne, the man who put up the
signs, will no longer do so if it upsets anyone in Saratoga
Boyd says that he feels Keehn has not been responsive to business
owners on Broadway who are dealing with high rent, which he
attributes to a lack of store space. Boyd points to a recently
erected building toward the north end of Broadway and says,
“Isn’t that a handsome building?”
now,” says Boyd, “we are losing some of our business to Ballston
Spa and surrounding communities.” He says there is a need
for more smart development in and around Broadway.
Keehn counters that Boyd is out of touch with the needs of
Saratoga Springs’ small businesses and the concerns of Saratoga
Springs’ citizens. “All of these bigger buildings that have
been going up, independent business owners by and large are
not able to afford to rent space in those buildings. They
are barely able to rent space in the older buildings that
are really set up for small, locally owned businesses. I don’t
think there is a direct benefit to our small, local business
owners to have all those big buildings going up that have
huge spaces that only chain stores can afford to rent.”
Keehn says that she has heard from a number of constituents
and tourists who feel Saratoga Springs is losing its charm
to chain stores.
would they want to come here and shop at Chico’s when they
can shop at the one they have in their town?” asks Keehn.
Keehn thinks Boyd’s support of development will scare off
many Saratogians who are concerned about the character of
Keehn says she has no interest in halting development all
together in Saratoga Springs, and if she did, she would not
have enough support to pass a moratorium.
the end, for Boyd the campaign comes down to his willingness
to work effectively together with other politicians. “When
I came here 36 years ago, we had a city half the size it is
now,” says Boyd. “We would not have gotten bigger if we didn’t
have politicians who worked together, who put the best interest
of the city first and politics second.”
Keehn is not running to fit in.
think this is a campaign about whether Saratoga Springs wants
somebody who is truly interested in fighting for the citizens
and for our city or someone who is interested in protecting
the entrenchment of politics and special interests in our
city,” she says. “And, you know, those special interests have
been running the show for a very long time. It’s time to let
the people have a shot for a change.”
While Keehn and Boyd both insist they are in the race to win
it, there is still talk that either Boyd or Republican Scott
Johnson, who has remained relatively quiet during the primary
race, may be in the race to play a spoiler.
The odds do not look so terrible for either Johnson or Boyd.
Boyd has the backing of McTygue, who is known to be able to
marshal turnout through his DPW base, whereas Johnson will
be facing either one or two Democratic candidates who will
have spent months disparaging each other.
Perhaps voters will be tired of the Democratic infighting,
or perhaps, as both Boyd and Keehn insist is the norm in Saratoga
Springs politics, the people of Saratoga Springs will not
vote with a party in mind and instead focus more on the individual.
On a sweltering August day, Keehn and a supporter stroll along
Court Street, carrying campaign material and a list of registered
Democrats who voted in the 2005 primary. Well-dressed teens
trot toward Broadway, cars slow down as their occupants wave
or honk at the mayor, and the occasional pedestrian stops
to greet her.
Keehn seems to know them all.
Not many people are home on this glittering Saturday, and
for Keehn, a lot of doorbell rings go unanswered.
She marvels at how few people actually vote in primaries.
At a corner of Court Street, Keehn stops to visit a household
with at least four Keehn signs prominently posted in the bright
green turf of the lawn.
Across the street, one house stands out prominently against
the modest nature of the rest of the homes on the street;
it is the only house with a black iron fence.
is Scott Johnson’s house. The man who will be running on the
Republican ticket in November,” says Keehn.
don’t think we will stop there today. He didn’t vote in the
last Democratic primary.”
She pauses for a second and chuckles, “I’ll stop by after